Molly Graham and Keith Ludden
“People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of mentality too. It goes from one generation to another.”
“Knowledge is power,” declared Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon. Centuries earlier, the Greek philosopher Socrates declared, “Know thyself.” That is perhaps the most powerful kind of knowledge. If we want our communities to be strong, vibrant, attractive to investment and successful, we need to be aware of our collective identities. If we want the power to chart our course, we need to understand our past, ourselves, our communities and the forces that shaped them through the stories of Maine’s people. First hand accounts of labor issues, racial tensions and ethnic divisions, and where those issues have led us provide individual perspective on a collective path. We must know how and why technological and cultural changes have affected our communities if we are to map the future.
Oral history is an effective means for exploring these forces. It gives context and meaning to the past, setting the community’s experience into a larger regional or national context. It is the gathering and interpretation of the human experience that exists in every community. Few things are more valuable. As defined by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, it is, “…a sound recording of historical information obtained through an interview that preserves a person’s life history or eyewitness account of a past experience.”
Oral History and Folklife Research, Inc. is dedicated to preserving the stories, recollections and voices of Maine people, events and movements. The multitudinous voices retelling and remembering Maine’s unique way of life, language and history will strengthen our connection with the past and enable us to better understand the events that have shaped the state. As the oral historian Paul Thompson wrote:
“Oral history is built around people. It thrusts life into history itself and widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from the leaders, but also from the unknown majority of the people. It encourages teachers and students to become fellow-workers. It brings history into and out of the community. It helps the less privileged, and especially the old, toward dignity and self confidence. It makes contact–and thence understanding–between social classes, and between generations.”
Oral histories capture collective historical truth by explaining what life looked and felt like during a time or in a place far removed from the present time and place. They have a spontaneous quality that is unequaled in other forms of historical record. Oral histories not only reveal and reflect the identity of a period and personality of a people, but also help collectively shape a community’s view of itself.
The recorded interviews will be archived and preserved for future researchers, giving voice and historical representation to a wide range of perspectives and viewpoints on Maine history through interviews that will outlive the narrators, giving future generations access to worldviews and worlds that would otherwise become inaccessible once those voices are silent. Oral History and Folklife Research, Inc. has the following goals:
- To preserve the narrator’s story told in his or her own voice as a service to that person, their descendants and future scholars
- To gather a rich and unique archive of voices and stories to know what life was really like for those who lived through events and societal changes; and to preserve those voices as a vivid record of the past for all who value the humanities.
- To enable greater access to oral histories through digital curation, best practices and online distribution.
- To create a collective memory of our shared past.
Maine, then, has much to gain from vigorously supporting oral history work. The stories of Maine’s people are rich and varied–the workers who packed fish in the canneries for over a hundred years; the loggers who harvested the Maine woods; the immigrants who came from Quebec, Ireland, Scotland and Somalia; the factory workers who shod the nation and produced the textiles to clothe it, and the men and women who left those factories and farms to go to war. Without an organized program of oral history, those stories will be lost. Telling their stories will enhance Maine’s status on the national scene. In order to shine our light from our own rocky shores, we must first know ourselves. We must learn things about ourselves and our communities that we will not find in the written record. Then we will indeed be a powerful force.